Chapter 1: Introduction

In this Chapter:

A. What is START?

START is a study/action process that offers a way for a small group of people to systematically ask basic questions about the workings of our society and choose effective ways to bring about positive change: Study, Think, Act, Respond Together. START groups are the direct descendents of the popular Macro-Analysis Seminars that were developed in the early 1970s.

START groups educate and empower people to help our society more fully embody traditional American ideals of democracy, justice, freedom, responsibility, altruism, bold action, and peaceful cooperation. Moreover, the process of a START group encourages the development and practice of these same ideals as the participants work together.

The basic processes of START were first developed by a group of people who were actively involved in the struggle for social justice in the United States. While working in the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement, they had discovered that the social problems they encountered did not exist in isolation — they were profoundly inter-connected and were part of a larger system of global injustice. Seeking to get to the roots of social and economic problems, they organized a variety of study groups. These led to the development of a particular kind of study group — a “Macro-Analysis Seminar” — to look at “the big picture.”

They prepared a study guide and reading list, and tens of thousands of people around the United States (and the world) subsequently conducted Macro-Analysis Seminars. Regrettably, this movement waned in the mid-1980s and, over time, the Macro-Analysis Seminar materials became outdated.

In 2005, a new group of people decided to revive the idea. We have revised the study guide (this document) and have developed a more extensive reading list of materials that are freely available on the Internet. While we continue to believe that it is vital to understand the big picture and reveal the systemic nature of problems (“macro-analysis”), in these hard times we need more focus on finding positive and effective solutions — so it seemed time for a new name.

START has had many contributors over the past four decades. What we present to you in this study guide and accompanying reading list is simply the most recent version of an on-going process of study and dialogue. We hope that you find its current manifestation useful. We also hope you will join us in this dialogue, and contribute whatever insights and suggestions you can to this process of study and action.

B. How Does a START Group Work?

The rest of this guide answers this question in detail. Briefly, a group of people (typically 8–12) agrees to meet regularly — typically once a week for a few hours. Beforehand, several of the participants read a few articles (or listen to audio recordings or watch a video). At the meeting, they each briefly present what they have learned to the others, and then everyone discusses the issues raised. They also engage in a variety of exercises to develop ideas and plans for positive change.

START groups are similar to other study groups, but have some unique features. Study groups that focus narrowly on societal problems can easily bog down in despair. Study groups that focus on theories of change rarely get to practical next steps. To avoid these problems, START looks at hard societal issues, change theories, and the many innovative solutions that have already proved possible. START also helps participants learn how to work effectively for positive change, enabling them to readily tackle tough problems.

Many study groups fail because they are conducted poorly — with unfocused discussions and a few dominant voices — and end up feeling like a waste of time. To avoid these problems, START has a particular group process designed to be democratic and encouraging of real sharing. This process also helps a group to focus its attention on and successfully grapple with the topic at hand. Since equalitarian, open, relationships are a part of our vision of a good society, it makes sense to develop these kinds of relationships with each other.

C. Why a Study Course?

As citizens of a democracy, it is our obligation to understand our world and act to make it better. But the world is a mysterious place, and we are continually bombarded by confusing, misleading, and conflicting information. It is difficult to learn and understand what is going on, why events occur the way they do, and how we can effectively tackle social problems.

The current information environment is significantly different from the past. For almost all of history, getting information was extremely difficult. Before the invention of the printing press, very few people had access to any information beyond their own experience. However, with the emergence of books, then newspapers, telephones, radio, television, and now the worldwide Internet, this situation has changed dramatically.

With the current information glut, our main difficulty has become separating out honest, helpful information from the commercial advertisements, mindless blather, alluring enticements, misinformation, deceitful propaganda, and discouraging sleaze that inundate us every day. Our crucial need now is for information that is truthful, coherent, and useful in effectively solving real problems.

Take, for example, the issue of world hunger. The Green Revolution of the 1960s (chemicals, machinery, and hybrid seeds) was supposed to solve the problem of hunger. But proponents did not allow for the negative impact of powerful multinationals in poor countries, the social disruption of destroying subsistence agriculture, or the environmental problems associated with chemical dependence. More food is being produced and people in developed countries are eating better than ever before, but world hunger is still an enormous problem.

This example shows how knotty a problem can be and how disappointing conventional solutions often are. START helps a group of concerned people see beyond the “conventional wisdom” and quickly learn — from readings and each other — about the problems of our society and effective ways to bring about positive change.

D. Analysis for Action

While focused on study, analysis, and discussion, the primary goal of a START group is to foster concrete action that will lead to a more just world society. Study groups sometimes snare people in what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the “paralysis of analysis” — forever studying the issues and continually putting off moving into action.

On the other hand, activists need time to reflect. To ensure his actions were on track, Gandhi regularly took time for analysis and reflection, a time known by some as “Gandhian Mondays.” START groups are one way for activists to spend their Gandhian Mondays together.

A number of change actions have come out of this process. A 1971 Macro-Analysis Seminar studying the problem of U.S. support of reactionary regimes abroad led to a very dramatic action in which groups of people in five different port cities used canoes and other small boats to block the loading of ships destined for the Pakistani Army. Pakistan at the time was attempting to subdue a nationalist revolt in the area that has since become Bangladesh, and its murderous course was being supported with U.S. arms. The blockade was honored by the longshore workers and led to changes in U.S. foreign policy.

An even larger and more far-reaching movement grew directly out of Macro-Analysis Seminars — the massive and effective safe energy (anti-nuclear power) movement of the 1970s and 80s.

We hope that your START group will also lead to effective action toward a better world.

E. Goals

Every START group will be different, but here are some overall common goals you might expect to achieve.

For the Individual:

  • Each participant learns more about the world and how it actually works.
  • Each participant is empowered as a citizen — encouraged and enabled to take responsibility for our society and work for positive change.
  • Each participant gains skills in working cooperatively with others.

For the Group:

  • The group becomes a cohesive and empowered entity.
  • The group supports individuals in their change efforts.
  • The group chooses an action direction and works together toward achieving it.

F. A Variety of Formats

The Standard 24-Session START Course

The standard START course described here comprises 24 sessions. The first two introductory sessions are 3 hours long and the rest are 2 1/2 hours long. We have found this to be a good length to learn about the world and explore ideas about changing society.

Typically, groups meet once a week. This works well and helps the group maintain focus and momentum. A group focused more intensely on study, such as a college class, might meet twice a week. Other groups, with members who have many other commitments, might decide to meet less frequently. However, we recommend that you meet at least twice a month so that the group maintains cohesion and members do not lose track of ideas from earlier discussions.

While a group might wish to have shorter sessions, we recommend that you meet at least 2 1/2 hours. Anything less will make the group feel rushed and significantly reduce the quantity (and quality) of discussion possible, and/or will make doing exercises impractical. Indeed, if it is possible, we recommend extending the length to 3 hours since this enables the group to have more discussion, engage in longer exercises, and explore ideas in more depth.

For each session, we have located a brief article that we suggest everyone in the group read beforehand. This article provides an overview of the general topic for that session. For each session, we have also prepared five sets of readings (or video or audio recordings). Five members of your group should each choose one set to read beforehand and summarize for others at the meeting. The materials we have chosen are succinct — it should take a participant about 60-90 minutes to read (listen to/view) each one and then prepare a 5-minute report. Other participants, who only read the overview article, should only need to spend about 15 minutes to prepare.

Other Possibilities

Chapter 3 describes a number of variations and alternatives to the standard 24-week START course.

Some groups do not have the time to attend a study group for 24 weeks or they must fit the process into a single college semester. In Section 3.A we give some examples of a truncated format with just 12 sessions. Still, knowing how superficially the longer version deals with such a broad range of issues, we strongly urge groups to invest the time necessary for a full 24-session START course.

Your group may want to adjust or adapt the START format in other ways. We offer various suggestions on how you might change the reading materials and process in Sections 3.B, 3.C, 3.D, and 3.E.

At the conclusion of the START course, some groups may want to dig deeper into a particular topic. Where possible, we have provided the resources to enable you to set up a focused issue-oriented study group. We have also provided some suggestions on how you might conduct such a group in Section 3.F.

To introduce people to the concept and practice of the START process, you may want to organize a self-contained, one-evening study group in which participants read materials and discuss them all in a single three-hour session — a “Starter” START. We offer suggestions on how to do this in Section 3.G.

Individuals or groups may also want to develop materials on other issues for their own use and the use of others. We offer suggestions on how to do that in Chapter 7.

G. How to Use this Study Guide

Chapter 2 provides details about how to conduct a Standard 24-Session START course. To understand the process, all participants in a START group should carefully read the first six sections of Chapter 2 (2.A, 2.B, 2.C, 2.D, 2.E, and 2.F), and skim Sections 2.G and 2.H. Participants may also want to read about alternative ways to structure a START course in Chapter 3, the underlying principles of START in Chapter 4, and a bit of theory about empowerment in Chapter 5. Participants may also be excited and empowered by the stories in Chapter 9 about action taken by previous participants in START and the Macro-Analysis Seminars.

In preparation for facilitating a session, the prospective facilitator and assistant facilitator may want to re-read the first four sections of Chapter 2 and then should carefully read the suggested agenda for that session in Section 2.E and the descriptions of the individual agenda items and exercises they might use in Sections 2.F, 2.G, and 2.H.

If your group is considering changing the course structure, in addition to Chapters 2 and 3, members of your group should probably read Chapter 4 to understand the principles that underlie the START process, why the standard 24-session is configured the way it is, and how modifications to the process might affect the participants’ experience. If you are considering convening a START course, you should carefully read through Section 2.B and Chapter 6. You may also want to conduct a “Starter” START session, as described in Section 3.G.

If you or your group is interested in developing new reading materials, Chapter 7 describes the criteria we used in preparing the current reading list.

If your START group doesn’t hold together well or has interpersonal problems, Chapter 8 offers some additional resources on group process and community building.

Chapter 9 describes some of the ways that participants in START can work for change and have done so in the past as well as providing a short history of START and its predecessor, the Macro-Analysis Seminar.

Note that you can download and print a complete copy of this START Study Guide (pdf) in Adobe Acrobat Reader format (pdf).

Next Chapter: 2. How to Conduct a Standard 24-Session START Course